Today’s guest columnist is Trotter Cobb.
I grew up in Tuscaloosa in the 1950s and 1960s. I see now I lived a life of white privilege. My father had a successful business; we lived comfortably and we had a Black maid and a Black yard man.
I grew up thinking of them as if they were members of our family and content to be in such roles.
It didn’t occur to me, being young, that while they were treated cordially, they really weren’t treated as members of our family. They were treated more like extensions of our family.
As a young boy and as a teen, it also never occurred to me how they might have felt when they were at home with their own families. Did they have affection for us or did they resent us? Did we send off signals of imagined superiority that were ingrained in our subconscious? Did they feel respected? Did we treat them with dignity even though the culture in which we all lived was segregationist?
I remember these two older adults as being kind and protective of me, fun and funny, and patient with me. Was I kind and respectful toward them? I think so, but that doesn’t matter. It’s what they thought that counts. Understanding that it’s what others think that counts, those most directly affected, has been brought home to me the past six months as I’ve pondered two phrases I wasn’t familiar with: white privilege and systemic racism.
As I’ve aged and reflected, I‘m embarrassed to admit that only recently has it occurred to me that part of the reason many Blacks at that time were in what some might consider menial jobs, was because the dominant white culture, intentionally and unintentionally, built barriers that thwarted many Black citizens from accessing one of the primary pathways to success in the workplace — quality education.
In the 1960s, my father nominated the African-American president of a local Black college to join one of Tuscaloosa’s most prestigious civic clubs, where my dad was a member. My father had gotten to know the man and thought he would make a good member of the club. Of course, the nomination was turned down. My dad was admonished by some of his fellow club members for even bringing this man’s name forward. “We just don’t do that,” my father was told.
It was a turbulent time in Tuscaloosa. The national Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan lived in the next town. Within walking distance of my house was the University of Alabama. In 1963, though just ten years old, I could feel the tension and see the federal presence in town the day Gov. George Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door.
As I have followed the racial unrest in our country the last six months, I have been caught off-guard. I thought we were making significant racial progress but obviously a lot more needs to be done.
So now I’ve shared some thoughts. But there are thousands of people out there — whites who grew up privileged in the 1950s and 1960s — who could share similar reflections. Thus, as I wrote this, I scratched my head wondering what if anything I could really add to the race conversation.
Then it hit me.
The world described above is not my only world. There is another one in which I live — as the father of a special needs son. It is the world of families with special needs children. In this world, there is no racism, no unspoken barriers between Blacks and Whites.
We families who live in this world, whose lives have been rerouted and rewarded by having special needs children, understand and support one another in ways that I have never encountered in any other aspect of my life. We cheer one another on, love one another’s kids, help one another, and care about one another’s families. It is a bond so deep and so different than anything I have ever encountered. And so uplifting.
Many of these families have gotten to know one another through Birmingham’s Exceptional Foundation which creates the tone described above. My wife and I and our adult son have lived in the special needs world for two decades and benefited from the Exceptional Foundation’s culture and offerings for years.
This world is not just an alternative reality. Despite the challenges we and other families with special needs kids face, I believe it is a purer reality. It is one where everyone is valued. It is a place, like the old “Cheers” sitcom, where everyone knows your name.
Moreover, I’m not sure that my son, who is 24 and faces multiple challenges, is capable of having racial thoughts. He loves people in a way that lights up a room, and because he is so sweet, innocent, open and pure, people love him wherever he goes. Sometimes I wish I could place his heart inside of mine.
So here is the challenge for me. I’m one person, what can I do about racism? My answer is evolving and I have come to understand that action is more important than words. But for starters, I believe that I can begin by committing to making the love and acceptance I see in the special needs community the norm in every aspect of my life.
Trotter Cobb, a retired Mountain Brook businessman, and his wife, Anne, are the parents of a special needs son. Trotter is dedicating his life’s work to helping the world better understand the challenges, triumphs and nuances of raising a special needs child.
David Sher is Founder & Publisher of ComebackTown.com. He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).
Invite David to speak for free to your group about how we can have a more prosperous metro Birmingham. firstname.lastname@example.org.